NFL’s elite heading to Wembley

While much of the attention should rightly fall on the Jacksonville Jaguars as the host team for the 2013 International Series showdown at Wembley Stadium next October, I cannot help but get excited at the prospect of a returning San Francisco 49ers team.

We may have seen the 49ers defeat the Denver Broncos in 2010 but they are vastly improved on the club that went 6-10 during that season.

Given the way they played in 2011 and the way they have started the 2012 campaign, it’s not an exaggeration to say they are one of the very best teams in the NFL and it is quite conceivable that they head to London next year as defending Super Bowl champions.

So let’s have a look at the areas in which the current San Francisco squad has changed from the 2010 team we saw at Wembley Stadium.

Pedigree

When the San Francisco 49ers last came to Wembley Stadium they did so as a team coming off an 8-8 campaign. They were a once-proud franchise keen to begin the journey back to the top of the NFL pile and, as we now know, they had many of the pieces in place from a personnel point of view.

But there were still holes on the roster and the 2010 49ers were not the finished product.

We cannot say the same thing about the 2012 San Francisco 49ers and it’s hard to imagine them getting weakened any time soon. The 49ers are currently riding a wave of confidence after reaching last year’s NFC Championship Game and knowing they had several very good opportunities to win that contest and advance to the Super Bowl.

This current 49ers team is within touching distance of the Super Bowl. We couldn’t say that about a 2010 squad that was talented but not quite there at the time.

Harbs at head coach

Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary was in charge of the Niners in 2010 and his demanding, aggressive, in-your-face style never seemed to get the best out of his team, especially quarterback Alex Smith. You also have to wonder if Singletary was the best in the business at getting his message across – not too many coaches resort to giving half-time speeches with their trousers around their ankles.

Former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh took charge of the Niners ahead of the 2011 campaign and re-entered the league as one of the hottest college coaches on the block. His handling of the 49ers has been superb and while he has the odd prickly moment with the media, Harbaugh is all for supporting his players and putting them in an environment to succeed.

Harbaugh has done some very interesting things with the 49ers in his year and a half in charge. For example, they had to play back-to-back east coast games early in 2011 and the same again this season. Rather than trek back and forth across the country, he kept his players in Youngstown, Ohio, held an additional in-season training camp and reeled off consecutive wins on both occasions. It’s the little things like that which make good teams into great ones.

Most importantly, Harbaugh has a tremendous relationship with Smith and his quarterback has finally blossomed into a star.

A fit and confident Alex Smith

Alex Smith missed the 2010 London game against Denver with a shoulder injury but even if he had been fit, I doubt we would have seen the kind of quarterback play exhibited by the former first round draft choice in the past 12 months.

As the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, Smith has played his entire career under an intense media spotlight and has not been helped by ever-changing offensive systems. But now, under Harbaugh, he has grown into an upper-echelon NFL passer capable of winning games on his own.

Smith was outstanding in last season’s playoff win over New Orleans, putting together one of the team’s best post-season performances ever – and that’s saying something for a team that was fortunate enough to have Hall of Famers such as Joe Montana, Steve Young and Y.A. Tittle under center.

Blessed with a strong and accurate arm, Smith has always been able to make the throws required to survive and thrive in the NFL. But now he has the confidence to back up his physical skills and the support of Harbaugh has vastly improved him to the point where he can take over games the way he did against the Buffalo Bills last weekend.

More offensive firepower

After coming so close to last year’s Super Bowl – and with arguably the NFL’s best defense already in place – the 49ers made upgrading the weaponry around Alex Smith their priority for this season.

And the results have been clear to see. Last week against the Bills, the 49ers racked up a club record 621 offensive yards – and as I mentioned before, that is no mean feat when you consider greats such as Montana, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig played for this team!

The 49ers are loaded at running back. Frank Gore remains the workhorse but he is now more than ably supported by Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs and rookie LaMichael James.

Vernon Davis remains one of the most athletic tight ends in the league and a player capable of taking over a game at any time and the receiving corps has been addressed after that unit caught just 1 pass for 3 yards in the NFC title game.

Mario Manningham and Randy Moss have been added to the roster and their presence is bringing out the best in Michael Crabtree. And by 2013, expect rookie first round draft pick A.J. Jenkins to be a bigger, more dynamic part of the offense.

Even better on defense

The 49ers were stout on the defensive side of the ball in 2010 – now they’re flat out dominant and arguably the best in the business.

The pieces were beginning to fall into place when the Niners took on the Broncos but this is definitely a unit on the rise. NaVorro Bowman has since emerged as a premier inside linebacker alongside the already-dominant Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith has proven himself to be a devastating pass-rusher off the edge.

Justin Smith is an absolute beast at defensive end and the entire D-line – tutored by former England Monarchs and Scottish Claymores coach Jim Tomsula – is just plain tough, brutal and unforgiving.

The 49ers returned all 11 defensive starters in 2012 and are showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.

That is not just reflective of the defense, however – that is the case for this entire team. They are loaded with talent and on an upward curve. I, for one, cannot wait to see them back at Wembley Stadium.